Detroit skyline

Detroit skyline by Bernt Rostad, on Flickr

I am Michigan kid, born and raised in the Great Lakes State I have always thought that it was just about the prefect place to grow up. As an adult I have continued to think that it is great place for kids, but a crappy place to be an adult. The problem, of course, is the economy in Michigan. It has been dominated by automobile manufacturing for most of the 20th Century.

The problem is, at least in my like time, is that whenever the national economy gets a cold, Michigan’s get the Bird Flu. The oil shocks of the 1970’s, the recessions of the 1980’s really did a number on the state and even in the boom times it never really got back to where it had been before.

The city of Detroit is the state of Michigan writ small. When the auto industry takes a hit, Detroit is the spot where the fist lands. The City has been struggling for a long time, but the newest census data shows just how bad things are in the Motor City.

Detroit’s population fell by 25% in the last 10 years. Think about that for a minute. 1 in 4 Detroiters moved somewhere outside of the city between 2000 and 2010. To give you a little perspective, New Orleans lost 29% of its population when a hurricane destroyed the city, and even there the total number was considerably lower, 140,000 leaving NO and 237,000 leaving Detroit.

The Motor City has been in population decline for a long time. From a high of nearly 2 million in the 1950’s it is down to 713,000. This makes it the first major city in the nation that achieved a population of 1 million to fall below that number, ever. The causes of its decline are not just the travails of the auto industry. It first started to lose population in the white flight to the suburbs. Now it is black residents who are also leaving the city in droves.

Again this is a trend that is playing out all over Michigan, not just one of its largest cities. Michigan was the only state not to see a net population increase in the nation, with a loss of 0.6 percent.

The city is incredibly empty. Over 20% of the 139 square mile city is vacant. It is mind blowing that one in five structures is unoccupied there. The City officials are feeling the heat too. It is bad enough to have these numbers make national news but there are other repercussions as well. From the New York Times article:

“While we expected a decline in population, we are confident these figures will be revised,” Mayor David Bing said in a statement. He told reporters that if the city could account for a total of 750,000 people, it would meet a threshold for receiving more federal and state money.

They have not only all the problems of a city in collapse but this new census has them scrounging around for nearly 37,000 more residents just so they can qualify for more federal dollars.

All of this leads me to wonder if this was the point of Gov. Rick Snyder’s corporate fascism law. If there is any place in the state that could reasonably be called in a state of financial emergency, well it is the City of Detroit.

This law, which I am still trying to wrap my head around on constitutional grounds, allows the governor to declare a state of fiscal emergency and then appoint a corporate manager for the municipality. This law is so expansive this new manager could, of course, break unions, but further could disband the elected government, with nothing but their say so.

Did Gov. Snyder have a good idea what was coming down the pipe for Detroit? It seems pretty likely to me. And look what he has now, a chance to perform the ultimate Republican/Libertarian/Corporatist free market experiment in the heart of a great American city.

He will probably be able to get away with it too. After all what can be done to revitalize a city that is imploding and no one seems to want to stay in if they have a choice? It is still completely tied to a single major industry, one which has been hard hit and still is going to have its ups and downs.

The Detroit of my childhood was an incredible place. Sure it could be grubby and there were places where it might be dangerous, but it was also the place you went to the Auto Show, to watch the fireworks on the river on 2nd of July (they share the cost of fireworks with Windsor across the river), where Rodin’s Thinker ponders outside the Detroit Institute of Arts; and where I got to tread the boards of a professional theater for the first time in Greek Town.

It was a city that was tough, but hard working. It build the cars that moved our nation, it was the home of Mo Town and it rocked hard with Kiss, Bob Seeger and Ted Nugent (that one causes a little shame, but what the hell). It was the city that had the Zoo with big elephant footprints to lead you from exhibit to exhibit.

Now it seems this grand old dame on the river is going to be treated like a premise for a movie. Lest anyone forget in the movie Robocop; all of the running of Detroit was sold to the Omni Consumer Products, and they were going to tear the whole thing down and build a new city there.

Unfortunately, the relatively benevolent CEO of OCP who wants to provide a better life for Detroiters, we are likely to have someone who cuddles up the Koch Brothers and thinks of the days when the Rouge River could catch on fire as the “good old days”.

The consequences of our build it cheap or move it overseas economic theory is being played out in Detroit. Sure you can get all kinds of manufactured goods for less at Walmart because they are made in other countries, but the long term cost is at least one major city in complete collapse. Is this the future we want? It is time to start stepping up and saying that we must put our workers back to work, operate our plants and any company that will trade the well being of the United States and its cities and people for short term profit is one none of us should do business with.

The floor is yours.